Metaphysical Song: An Essay on Opera

Metaphysical Song: An Essay on Opera

by Gary Tomlinson


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Metaphysical Song: An Essay on Opera by Gary Tomlinson

"A fascinating and sensitive study of how philosophers have probed the problem of subjectivity through the passage of the operatic voice. Tomlinson's work is notable for the way it combines a thorough knowledge of the history of music and opera with an understanding of contemporary problems of theory and methodology."—Lydia Goehr, Columbia University

"This extraordinary book offers us an 'alternative story' of the history of opera. . . . [It] will have an important . . . effect on the way we think about opera."—Roger Parker, Oxford University

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691004099
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 02/01/1999
Series: Princeton Studies in Opera Series
Pages: 192
Product dimensions: 7.75(w) x 10.00(h) x 0.49(d)

About the Author

Gary Tomlinson is Annenberg Professor in the Humanities at the University of Pennsylvania and has held Guggenheim and MacArthur fellowships. His books include Monteverdi and the End of the Renaissance and Music in Renaissance Magic: Toward a Historiography of Others.

Read an Excerpt

Metaphysical Song

An Essay On Opera

By Gary Tomlinson


Copyright © 1999 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-00409-9



Just as the operatic voice has fascinated us, in the West, continuously for four hundred years, so we have felt the need again and again to formulate explanations of its force. Two recent scholarly developments suggest that the time may be ripe for a new such formulation. First, the notion of voice in opera has grown increasingly complex and rich in recent years. It has been scrutinized from enough perspectives—from narratology to post-Freudian and post-Lacanian psychoanalysis, from feminist theory to queer sensibility—that we must think twice before presuming to know just who expresses what as a singer portrays for us a dramatic role. Musicologists in particular have tried out on the operatic voice a wide array of the approaches to utterance and self that have emerged from other academic disciplines. In the process voice has seemed at times almost to displace the musical score at the heart of operatic study. It has done so provocatively and, often, productively.

The second development is the anthropological impulse, broadly speaking, that drives many of the human sciences these days, which I would sum up as the quest for a knowledge of others that can alienate even as it illuminates, a knowledge that is of ourselves in its being of others. In musicology, in the wake of this impulse, an assertion such as Carl Dahlhaus's from some years back that "the task of historical hermeneutics is to make alien material comprehensible" no longer seems self-evident. The prevailing winds have shifted, far enough indeed that the historian's aim may at times seem fully the opposite of Dahlhaus's—an aim, precisely, of making comprehensible material alien. At the very least the hermeneutic task seems now to require a joining or reconciliation of the two trajectories, a distancing of materials that somehow brings with it new familiarity in them and new knowledge of ourselves.

This defamiliarizing impulse has grown strong enough in musicology that we may now see that our tendency to describe our operatic commitment as "fascination" is no happenstance choice of words. It signals processes set in motion by operatic singing and enactment that remain for us mysterious in their distance from our self-conscious, rationalized conceptions and in their proximity to some more atavistic wellspring in us of sensibility and emotion. We tend to forget the precisely magical entailments of fascination, its invoking of hidden forces that inhabit the history of the word and characterize the phenomena it has conveyed at least as far back as the Latin fascinum of late antiquity. As we overcome this forgetfulness, we might begin to sense—or sense anew, since it is a connection that has been more often noted than ignored over the last four centuries—that opera is inevitably and rightly implicated in a magical history. "Fascination" is an apt watchword for the genre's links, throughout its history, with extravagance, un- or hyperreality, and irrationality.

In global perspective this association connects opera to a wide, deep, and cross-cultural mainstream of vocal functions. The effects of operatic singing constitute one subspecies within a huge family of human experiences brought about by heightened utterance—chanting, shouting, singing, incantation, whatever. These experiences are found in countless different cultural settings—probably, indeed, they are determining features of all cultural settings. They extend across a span of time that, were we in a position to measure it, would likely be found to equal the whole history of human society. In them, voice, employed in exceptional ways and in special, carefully demarcated circumstances, opens to perception invisible realms. Voice connects its bearers and hearers to ordinarily supersensible realities.

The essay that follows in the first place advances a claim that opera, through its history, has been a chief staging ground in elite Western culture for a belief in the existence of two worlds, one accessible to the senses, the other not. Operatic singing has supplied for the elite societies of early modern and modern Europe a potent experience of a metaphysics as well as of a physics, of an immaterial as well as of a material world.

Opera, needless to say, was not the first and has not been the only important European singing to bring about such an experience. Another, the liturgical chant of the Middle Ages, always walked a fine line between the revelation of a Christian supersensible and some other, more mundane display. (In the religious context this was a problem. Augustine worried famously about the tightrope act, and a millennium later Erasmus and many others were still worrying.) But opera is unique in elite European culture of the last four centuries: unique in its extraordinary history of sustained creativity from the late Renaissance on; in the central, ritualistic functions that changing societies have accorded it across that time; and even (if we include under its aegis various outgrowths such as musical comedy) in the dramatic staging altogether of the act of singing.

Across this influential history, opera has not always envoiced the same invisible realms or envoiced them in the same ways. Instead the genre has witnessed, registered, and indeed helped to define several fundamental changes in the arrangement of perceived and imperceptible worlds. Opera, in other words, has embodied not one Western metaphysics but several. As Adorno once put it (in a gnomic tone reminiscent of his colleague Walter Benjamin), operatic metaphysics "is absolutely not a realm of invariance which one could grasp by looking out through the barred windows of the historical; it is the glimmer of light which falls into the prison itself." The four-hundred-year history of the genre is measured off by these shifting, shimmering metaphysics. Though we habitually conceive it as a unitary progress, operatic history might rather be rethought as a set of diverse manifestations, differing at fundamental levels of cultural formation, of the older, deeper, and broader impulse to voice an ordering of the world that includes invisible terrains. Opera's history can be mapped and partitioned according to the various supersensible realms it has brought to audible perception and the changing ways it has done so.

These differing hidden realms, it should be understood, are posited here not as absolute supersensible realities but as cultural constructions. They are what is presumed by a particular society to lie beyond the limits of its sensate perception. But by virtue of this marking of boundaries, this setting-off of a place beyond the liminal extremes granted to perception, the hidden realms become real indeed. They answer to deep conditions of possibility of knowledge, imagination, and aspiration in the cultures that give rise to them. They reflect the deepest ways in which a culture plots its place, and the places of the individuals that constitute it, in the world.

And, to repeat, these realms are time and again rendered to the senses and to cognition especially through extraordinary manipulations of voice and its supporting minions. An approach to the fascinations of opera, then, requires a historicizing of its different voices, an attempt to sketch the deep-level transformations that operatic voices have undergone since 1600. An approach that will highlight our own immersion in the most recent of these transformations calls in particular for a characterization of the new operatic voice that emerged around 1800. We remain, in basic ways, in the thrall of this post-Enlightenment voice, whatever the transformations it has more recently undergone. It militates against our gaining access to a place where we might have leverage to think it critically—to hear it, so to speak, from a distance—and thereby to hear the different voices that preceded it.

Perhaps it has always been obvious (but it is especially clear in an era whose thought grants to utterance an extraordinary, volatile constitutive force) that the uses of voice are fundamental features of an individual subject's self-definition in interaction with others and the world around. The historicizing of opera according to its different fashions of envoicing supersensible realities, then, will be a story also of the genre's expression of changing models of subjectivity. The operatic voice provides a compelling capsule history of the realization of these shifting subjectivities in Western expressive culture. In setting the borderlines between sense and the supersensible, it taps the deepest subjective expectations of the elite echelons of Western society that created and appreciated it. For these strata of society the operatic voice, among other forces, locates the subject in the world.

Here again, in this general function of envoicing subjectivity through song, opera is no different from the practices of countless other cultures. The chanting of Brazilian candomblé or Haitian voudun, in which particular gods are summoned to possess the singers; the frenzied recitation of Plato's poet, flushed from on high with divinity; the song-journey of a Tungus shaman to unseen regions where life-and-death struggles are fought for human souls; the sung astrology of the European Renaissance, bringing health and well-being to the magus through concord with the celestial spheres; the dream songs of tribal Malaysia, in which souls of trees, animals, and places convey messages through the singer—all these well-studied cases and many others have begun to tell us much about their respective models of subjectivity. More specifically, all these acts of song delineate the subject by at once defining and breaching borders between it and other, external forces, both sensible and supersensible. They reveal non-Western or premodern intuitions of subjectivity in the same way that the history of opera traces the changing picture of envoiced subjectivity in the early modern and modern West.

In the broadest division, in the deepest shifting of envoiced hidden worlds, the history traced below falls into three eras. The first, the late Renaissance, extends back well before the creation of recitative, the single most important technical innovation marking the moment about 1600 when musicologists conventionally locate the "birth" of opera. This first period embraces many varieties of Renaissance music drama, including works like Poliziano's Orfeo, Romain Rolland's opéra avant l'opéra; it reaches forward to include the mythological court music dramas of the early 1600s. The second period extends from the middle of the seventeenth century through the era of dominance of Lullian tragédie en musique and its outgrowths and of Metastasian opera séria. And the third reaches from sometime near the end of the eighteenth century through the nineteenth century and, with momentous internal shifts of its own, to the present day.

Each of these eras of opera projects in voice its own distinctive subjectivity. Each can be understood, in general terms, according to its characteristic construction of the human individual, according to its conception of the visible and invisible realms of the broader cosmos, and its location of the individual in them, and according to the idiosyncratic use it makes of voice onstage in manifesting those views. These differing constructions of the subject circulate, without doubt, more widely in their respective eras than in opera alone. They may be posited as foundational structures for (at least) the elite cultures of their eras. As such they might well be traced in other contemporaneous media and genres.

And, more important here, they can be described with the assistance of broad philosophical currents of their times that are congruent with them—those philosophies especially that aim to spell out or summarize a view of the human organism, its physics, and its metaphysics. Thus we find in Ficino a portrayal of the human subject that matches in fundamental regards the subjectivity given voice in late Renaissance opera; in Descartes a model captured in opera seria and its immediate antecedents; in Kant a subject that has haunted the operatic stage for the last two centuries; and in Nietzsche a reconceiving of subjectivity that challenges Kantianism and limns an opera that perhaps has never been.

It must not be thought, however, that these philosophers are put forward here as theorists of opera itself. Among them only Nietzsche might qualify. Neither do I maintain that they determine or control by specific lines of influence the profile of the operas of their respective ages. They are linked to opera in a relation of analogy, not causality. There is no specifically Cartesian brand of opera, much less a Ficinian or a Kantian one. (This is true notwithstanding the fact that it might be feasible to locate a work that more or less explicitly moots issues raised by an influential philosopher of its day. Tristan, whose reliance on Schopenhauer is as unquestionable as it is elusive, is the most famous—and perhaps a singular—example.) Instead Ficino, Descartes, and Kant express ways of experiencing subjectivity, each of which pervaded a particular, historically situated society. They are theorists not of opera but of the human subject. Instead of acting as agents of operatic history, they give us cogent, discursive analyses of modes of subjectivity that are voiced as well (through different means) in opera. The widely divergent views they offer of the self in the world capture in some small measure the shifting experience of subjectivity in the West over the last half-millennium.

Put the matter the other way around: These different subjectivities can be witnessed in much of the elite expressive culture of each period, including its philosophy. And they are given voice, perhaps preeminently, in opera. So although there is little or no Cartesian opera as such, nevertheless opera from the mid-seventeenth to the mid-eighteenth century repeatedly broached a model of subjectivity congruent with Descartes's cogito and the particular dualism it entailed. Although the court music dramas in the years around 1600 may not, in most cases, amount to explicit projects of white magic in song, they nonetheless embody a sense of the centrality of voice in the matrix of the individual and world that is akin to Ficino's. And whereas Kant's transcendental subject may not be broached self-consciously in Verdi, Meyerbeer, or even (usually) in Wagner, still the themes, topoi, and most of all the uses of voice in these composers' works (and in the works of countless of their contemporaries) resonate with an approach to the world and self that Kant also had expressed with unprecedented clarity in the realm of epistemology.

It is the representativeness of each of these philosophers in their visions of subjectivity that justifies their invocation in an essay on the uses of operatic voice. Other essays could certainly be written along more or less similar lines, I believe, using other theorists of subjectivity: Campanella or Pomponazzi might be substituted for Ficino, Spinoza or Leibniz for Descartes, and Hegel or Schopenhauer for Kant. Nietzsche is a special case: no one else, probably, could substitute for him, though the idea of summoning Wittgenstein in his place is intriguing. Any such study would necessarily raise other issues and bring different emphases than this one, but it might well not differ in its broadest outline. Such is the range and general import of the conceptions of the self that Ficino, Descartes, and Kant described.



When opera began, voice, psyche, and the subject as a whole were at one with the hidden regions of the world. By virtue of this conjunction there was no unconscious in early opera, no psyche at odds with itself. Instead there was only an extension of human powers into parts of the world hidden from the senses. Similarly, we see no symbolism in these works, but only a voicing of connections between perceived and supersensible realms in a unified cosmos. Symbolism, in its modern sense, at least, entails a metaphorical leap from one realm to another, unconnected realm. Renaissance significance instead comes from something more like a tracing, at root metonymic, of connections out from a center point to adjacent things. The voice of late Renaissance opera effects just such a tracing. Its ability to do so says much about both its place in the human organism and that organism's place in the broader cosmos.

The late Renaissance experience of the universe and the place of humankind in it as an immense web of connected entities is expressed most clearly in the revival and dispersion of Platonic and Neoplatonic modes of thought. In such thought, at least as the sixteenth century interpreted it, the fertile mind of God imbues all things lower than itself, from the highest angel to the lowliest stone, with formal simulacrums of its divine ideas. This ineffable fertility guarantees the connection of things to one another, ultimately because of the unified nature of God's mind. In principle, all things must therefore be connected in a more or less mediated and circuitous fashion. This web of relations, this cosmos, manifests intricate patterns of similitude among things, similitudes crossing whatever more directly related things fill the ontological distance between them. And, because the power of these connections arises as a function of God's ultimate creative efficacy—his pouring forth of ideas from the divine mind—all things have the potential to influence and operate on all other things.


Excerpted from Metaphysical Song by Gary Tomlinson. Copyright © 1999 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Preface, ix,
I Voices of the Invisible, 3,
II Late Renaissance Opera, 9,
III Early Modern Opera, 34,
IV Modern Opera, 73,
V Nietzsche: Overcoming Operatic Metaphysics, 109,
VI Ghosts in the Machine, 127,
VII The Sum of Modernity, 147,
Notes, 157,
Index, 181,

What People are Saying About This

Lydia Goehr

"A fascinating and sensitive study of how philosophers have probed the problem of subjectivity through the passage of the operatic voice. Tomlinson's work is notable for the way it combines a thorough knowledge of the history of music and opera with an understanding of contemporary problems of theory and methodology."--Columbia University

Roger Parker

"This extraordinary book offers us an 'alternative story' of the history of opera, one addressing not the conventional channels of musical/generic development, but something much more basic to the way opera is received by its listeners: a view that places at the forefront the genre's various imaginings of the human subject. Metaphysical Song will have an important and perhaps long-lasting effect on the way we think about opera."--Oxford University

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